The New Ruling Class: round robin format arrives

Before there were two classes – qualifiers and direct entries – and now there are three: qualifiers, direct entries, and the “ruling class”.

I’m spending Christmas in the small town of Menomonie, Wisconsin, U.S.A. It sits on the beautiful Menomonie River as you can see here. This is the kind of town where people make peanut butter chocolate chip kiss cookies for holiday gatherings (one stick of butter, a few cups of brown sugar, Hershey’s kisses, and a huge mound of peanut butter) and the local sports section runs an apology from the Department of Natural Resources to local hunters who recently donated deer heads to a study on Chronic Wasting Disease. Evidently some hunters were not told that the deer processing plant was not accepting headless deer from the study and so they were left with a headless body and nowhere to put it.

This year it’s a brown Christmas in Menomonie – snow has not yet arrived – so it’s easy to get around. I must say, though, that I’m concerned about walking through the woods and stumbling over a headless deer.

I’m returning home next Wednesday and by the end of the week the new tennis season will be upon us. Jeez, they can’t even wait till next year. The event in Adelaide, Australia, starts on Sunday, New Year’s Eve, and it’ll be a round robin tournament. A “32-Player Hybrid Format Round Robin” event to be exact and it’s no easier to explain than it is to say. The tournament has four parts:

  1. Qualifying: 16 players, 4 qualifiers progress to playoff round.
  2. Play-off round: 16 players (12 direct entry, 4 qualifiers) play one match for 8 play-off spots in the round-robin.
  3. Round-robin: 24 players in 8 groups of 3. Each player will have two round robin matches against the other players in their group.
  4. Knockoff round: the 8 winners of each group progress to a single elimination playoff starting with quarterfinals.

What this means is that 16 players will enter the qualifying tournament for 4 spots in the tournament, same as usual. That’s followed by a one round playoff of 8 matches with the 4 qualifiers and 12 direct entry players. The 8 players who win their playoff match will then go into one of 8 round robin groups with 3 players in each group. The winner of each group then gets into the quarterfinals of the single elimination knockoff round.

The first thing to note is that there is new class of ATP player. Before there were two classes – qualifiers and direct entries – and now there are three: qualifiers (they have to qualify and win a playoff round), direct entries (they have to win a playoff round) and the “ruling class” (they go directly into round robin play). The second thing to note (besides the fact that this whole thing seems ridiculously complicated) is that qualifiers and direct entries have to win 6 matches to win the tournament and a member of the ruling class only has to win 5.

I grew up in England in a working class family so I’m no fan of class systems but I approve of this change and here’s why. When I write my fantasy tennis posts every Sunday during the season, I keep track of something called a Zero Counter: the number of matches between players who’ve never met each other before. Last year, almost 30% of the matches in 32 player tournaments were Zero Counter matches. That is ridiculous because tennis doesn’t have any rivalries. How you have rivalries when players never meet each other?

Tennis is also short on marquis celebrities. If the tournament is filled with the recognizable names of top players instead of nameless qualifiers and lower ranked players, tennis should be able to build better name recognition and sell a better product.

Notice also that the 16 player ruling class is guaranteed to play at least two matches. A qualifier could fail to get into the tournament, a direct entry could go out in the playoff round, but the ruling class will always play the other two members of their group. This helps sell tickets because fans know they can see Roger Federer or Andy Roddick or Rafael Nadal at least twice during the week.

That’s about the only thing you can be sure of. What if you play fantasy tennis and you’d like to know who’s going to be in round robin play? First of all, you don’t know who the qualifiers are when you submit your team because the submission deadline is on Saturday and qualifying isn’t complete until Saturday. Second, you don’t know which players will get out of the playoff round. The only players you know for sure are the 16 ruling class players.

And that’s the point of this whole complex ordeal: put the focus on the best players on the tour. It’s entertainment folks. People want to see Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, not Andreas Seppi and Potito Starace.

Meanwhile, let’s keep our eye on the ruling class and see how the experiment in tennis class warfare plays out.